By Barry Janoff
March 30, 2017: There are major changes coming to professional tennis that will not affect the likes of Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, but will impact players who want to be the future No. 1 players in the world.
Citing research that shows almost half of the 14,000 players in overcrowded pro tennis circuits do not earn prize money — and that only 1% earn enough to pay expenses — the International Tennis Federation, said that its board of directors has approved a "major restructuring of professional tennis at its entry level."
According to ITF — the world governing body for the sport, which partners with the men's ATP World Tour and the women’s WTA World Tour to oversee professional tennis — the changes would include a "radical reduction in the number of truly professional players and the creation of a new global ITF Transition Tour in 2019 that will provide opportunities for the next generation of talented players to enter the professional pathway."
The new platform would reduce the number of pro players on tour from about 14,000 men and women in 2016 to 1,500 in 2019.
ITF said the reform program was in response to a three-year ITF Player Pathway review of pro and junior tennis that included an analysis of player and event data from 2001-13, and a survey of more than 50,000 stakeholders.
According to the review, "There are too many players trying to compete on the professional circuit, too few players breaking even in earnings and the age of these players is increasing."
According to ITF data, "There are currently around 14,000 players competing in professional tennis events, almost half of whom do not earn any prize money."
The review also showed that it is taking longer for players to reach the top levels of the sport, and that many talented junior players experience considerable difficulty in transitioning to professional tennis.
According to ITF research, in 2013 there were 8,874 male professional players, 3,896 of whom earned no prize money; and 4,862 female pro players, 2,212 of whom earned no prize money.
ITF said that it is recommending pro player groups of no more than 750 men and 750 women, respectively.
According to David Haggerty, president for London-based ITF, "The ITF’s Player Pathway study is the most comprehensive review of professional tennis ever undertaken and has highlighted the considerable challenges at the base of our game.
"Over 14,000 players competed at professional level last year which is simply too many. Radical changes are needed to address the issues of transition between the junior and professional game, playing affordability, and tournament cost,”said Haggerty.
The scheduled launch in 2019 of an ITF Transition Tour would feature a new category of interim tournament at entry-level “that will better aid the transition from junior to professional tennis and ensure a continued opportunity for players from any nation to join the player pathway.”
These tournaments would be held within a localized circuit structure that reduces costs and increases opportunity for players, and reduces staging costs for organizers, per ITF.
According to ITF data, the average cost to be on the pro tennis in 2013 was $38,800 for male players and $40,180 for female players (depending on region and/or ranking). That included flights, accommodation, food, restringing, laundry, clothing, equipment and airport transfers, but not coaching costs.
That year, of the nearly 8,900 men on the pro circuit, only 336 men reached the break-even point on the earnings list (where average costs met actual earnings) and just 253 of the more than 4,860 women.
The total men’s prize money in 2013 was approximately $162 million.
An even distribution of that total would have provided every male player that earned prize money with $32,638. However, that year, the top 1% of male players — the top 50 players — won 60% of the total, or $97,448,106.
Nadal won the most tournament titles that year, ten, including Grand Slams at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open. He topped $12 million in prize money, including $3.6 million at the U.S. Open.
Total women’s prize money that year was approximately $120 million, meaning an even distribution would have provided each female player that earned prize money with $45,205.
That year, the top 1% of female players — the top 26 — won 51%, or $60,585,592.
"There are too many players trying to compete on the professional circuit, too few players breaking even in earnings and the age of these players is increasing."
Serena Williams, who finished 2013 ranked No. 1 in the world, earned nearly $12.4 million that year, including more than $3.5 million alone for winning the U.S. Open Grand Slam, according to the WTA.
"We have already taken an important step forward by increasing prize money levels at ITF Pro Circuit tournaments," said Haggerty. "The next step is to ensure the structure of professional tennis is fit for purpose through a targeted job opportunities approach that will create a smaller group of true professional players.
"At the same time it is imperative that we do not reduce the chance for players of any nation or background to start their journey towards the Top 100," said Haggerty.
Sponsorship spending on the sport hit a record $801 million in 2016. The figure was up 4.2% from the $769 million spend in 2015.
However, the figure lagged behind the 4.7% rise in overall global sponsorship spend that year, according to the 2016 Tennis Sponsorship Report from research and consulting firm IEG, Chicago.
ITF had a strong year, renewing deals with such major partners as BNP Paribas, Rolex and Adecco; and adding partners including Betway Group. ITF also has deals that include Uniqlo and beIN Sports.
ITF had $80 million in renewal deals and $9 million in new deals, per IEG.